Two flop sequels to William Friedkin's 1973 fright classic The Exorcist—one in 1977 and one in 1990--should have been enough to convince Warner Brothers to leave well enough alone. Now, the prequel Exorcist: The Beginning just goes to show, once again, that The Exorcist was a one-of-a-kind film. But you know how it goes: the power of cash compels them.
After 2000's Exorcist reissue lit up the box office, Warner Brothers stepped up their sequel plans by dropping TV director Tom McLoughlin and hiring a highly regarded director, John Frankenheimer (you know, the guy who made The Manchurian Candidate the first time). Frankenheimer bowed out due to health reasons (and died shortly thereafter), so the studio hired the king of dark machismo, Paul Schrader (Affliction, Auto Focus), to film novelist Caleb Carr's rewrite of a script by William Wisher (Terminator 2). Liam Neeson abandoned the role of Father Merrin (played in 1973 by Max von Sydow), so Stellan Skarsgård stepped into the film, but Schrader's rough cut was deemed too contemplative and not scary enough. Enter Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, Die Hard 2), who started from scratch with pitiable trouper Skarsgård.
The result of all of this sturm und drang is a rather obvious fright picture which recycles the memorable bits from the 1973 film and reworks elements of Schrader's version to create a workmanlike mulch only marginally more entertaining than the endless string of religious horror movies Hollywood has churned out over the last decade (remember The Order, Lost Souls, End of Days, Stigmata, Bless the Child, et al? I didn't think so). Plenty of gore, insects, and death-wishing whack jobs intended to gussy up the ideas of Wisher, Carr, and Schrader only serve to bore a "been there, done that" audience. Even within the confines of Exorcist: The Beginning, Harlin repeats himself, with endless iterations of three basic scare tactics: something's there, then nothing's there; nothing's there, then something's there; and/or quiet calm turning into a loud jolt pumping out the speakers and flashing off the screen.
In 1949, Merrin has forsaken the priesthood and turned to drink. Haunted by the atrocities he witnessed in World War II, the "Oxford-educated archaeologist [and] expert in rare antiquities" only reluctantly agrees to investigate a church being excavated in Nairobi, Kenya. An aberration in Christian history, the 5 A.D. church presents a mystery and spooks the purportedly superstitious natives. Religious iconography (an artifact representing the devil, upside-down crucifixes, sizzling holy water, the Roman Rituals), lurking hyenas, cannibalistic birds, and unexplained ailments amount to a load of hooey for the faithless Merrin, who finds himself saddled with a Father Damien prototype named Francis (James D'Arcy) and tempted by Izabella Scorupco's nurse Sarah.
Of course, the devil is at work in the Turkana region, and no one is safe (particularly not the native boys, one ending up in several pieces and another on "touched by the devil" watch). Evil, Merrin insists, is not an entity but "a purely human condition inside all of us." This intriguing notion, left over from Schrader's version, becomes buried under horror-movie mechanics, including Merrin's unaccountable persistence in working alone at night in remote settings. The irrational intrusions of the British Army add fuel to the fire, but in the end, nothing matters except the inevitable showdown between Merrin and an underachieving Lucifer.
Harlin is a filmmaker with unmistakable flair, and with the help of legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) manages to conjure some atmosphere (a crosscut sequence of Merrin prying open a tomb and a grotesque village stillbirth lingers in the memory), but mostly Exorcist: The Beginning just lies around waiting for its own afterlife on cable and video shelves. Warner Brothers no doubt hopes Harlin's film will serve as the beginning of a new franchise (producer James G. Robinson reportedly has a TV series in mind). As for Schrader's version of Exorcist: The Beginning, it's a reported candidate for a DVD release, pending some post-production attention. Perhaps that film, finally, would justify the notion of an Exorcist spin-off.